I’ve been researching environments for children since 1999 when I designed a series of sensory gardens for children with special needs at St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Rosemont, PA. But my experience with autistic children and the physical environment went back much earlier.
When our family moved into our present house, my son was barely two years old. We had some idea that he was different from other children his age, but no one could put their finger on what it was. It wasn’t until he entered Kindergarten that the school psychologist suggested we have him observed and diagnosed by a psychiatrist. We agreed and learned that the diagnosis was Asperger’s syndrome, considered to be on the higher functioning range of Autism Spectrum Disorder. His speech was delayed and he tended to walk around all day, holding two small animals from Fisher-Price’s Farm in his fists. He graduated to small dinosaur toys at around the age of two and would cry when parted from them. The rest of the world seemed foreign to him.
As a landscape architect, I knew how important nature and the local landscape meant to me and my husband (who had studied ecology in college). I wanted to create our garden as a place where our son could learn to engage with nature. My husband agreed. So, I planted to attract wildlife: berried shrubs as well as caterpillar and nectar plants that attracted birds and insects. This tactic was pretty successful. We found our son hiding in a thicket of shrubs one day, watching the neighbor’s cat prowl for rodents. Another day, he found a praying mantis egg case. Still another time, he brought an “egg” for me to identify. It was a small, capsule-shaped object which he cut open to reveal something that looked like a grub inside. I told him I didn’t know what it was and he went back outside. A month or so later, we were sitting at the dining room table when his eyes got big and wide. “Oh! Oh!” he exclaimed and ran to the buffet. Tucked into the back of the buffet surface was a plastic cookie container, filled with sand. I noticed that holes had been poked into the plastic top to let in air. And, flying around the container was a digger wasp! He explained that he had found the “eggs” in my sand pile (left over from working on garden paths) and put them in this makeshift terrarium to hatch. And hatch they did!
Later, when I had the opportunity to put in a pond, I first asked him whether he wanted one and, if so, where would he like it to be. He pointed to the place where the grass grew the best in the front yard. So the digging began! He watched the workmen dig the pond and install the liner, and he even helped fill the liner with water from the garden hose. While I carefully selected aquatic plants at local nurseries, he started wandering off into the area where they kept fish and tadpoles and begged me to get some for the pond as well.
He would go out to the pond each morning before we walked to school, and visited every afternoon when we got home. He’d drag me down to see each new creature. When the weather got warm, he’d change into swim trunks and wade in…until he started finding dragonfly larvae and snakes in the pond. After that, he was content to lie on the big, flat stones that lined the pond and dip his water in to touch tadpoles or pet the fish.
We used the garden and pond as a draw to attract children to us as well. Whenever we invited children over for play dates, they all inevitably ended up outside by the pond or up in the big Japanese maple. Recently, one of the boys told my son that he liked coming over to our house because we actually had trees that they could play in!
Back in 2004, I noticed our son behaving differently in nature settings when we were vacationing in the Adirondacks. I was teaching at the University of Delaware at the time and decided to do an observational study of children in nature camps – to see if children behaved differently in the various places. There was little research being done on the physical environment and the role the environment played for autistic children, so I decided to go on for my doctorate to study this and to be able to apply it as a landscape architect. The blog essays this month relate to my ongoing research. Thank you for posting your comments and, at the very least, accompanying me on this month’s exploration! I hope you enjoyed it!
Yesterday, I wrote that there are very few outdoor environments that have been built for autistic children. One way to help increase the database of knowledge in design is to evaluate such places and discuss their merits. I have been performing post occupancy evaluations of this type with different forms of children’s environments, but not specifically for autistic children (outside of my own garden). If you know of one, please comment on this blog!